Here’s a guaranteed motivation killer: After months or years of dedicated lifting, you realize that you’ll never bench your body weight, jump high enough to reach the rim, or hit double digits on pullups. It’s just not in the cards. You start to wonder why you even bother.
It may seem unfair, but there will always be guys—some of whom inevitably find their way to the bench or squat rack next to yours—who seem born to excel at certain exercises. The truth is, they were. And you weren’t. But that’s no excuse to cancel your gym membership. “Even if your body proportions aren’t ideal, you can still perform exercises that maximize your body’s potential,” says Todd Durkin, C.S.C.S., the owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego.
So don’t give up. Instead, sack up and tackle the problem head-on. Here are some common traits that can lead to frustration in the weight room, and ways to make the most of what you have to build a better body.
The bench press may be a barometer of masculinity, but it discriminates against long-limbed lifters. While the distance the bar travels does limit both performance and results, long arms can also set you up for injury. A tall man’s balland-socket shoulder joint—the place where his upper-arm bone meets his shoulder blade—is more vulnerable than a shorter man’s. “You actually drive your arm bone into the joint, setting yourself up for rotator-cuff injuries down the road,” says Martin Rooney, P.T., C.S.C.S., of the Parisi Speed School.
The workaround: With medicine-ball throws, you can focus on speed instead of on lifting weight. “You’ll work more of the fast-twitch muscle fibers that come into play during quick movements,” says Durkin. No medicine ball? Do 3 to 5 sets of as many pushups as you can in 30 seconds
Lying Medicine-Ball Throw
Lie on your back, using both hands to hold a heavy medicine ball against your chest. Push the ball just high enough into the air that it leaves your hands. Catch it, and immediately bring it back to your chest for the next throw. Do as many as you can in 30 seconds. Rest, and do 4 more sets.
“Most of the big powerlifters you see have a short, stocky build,” Rooney says. It serves them well on squats and bench presses. But when the bar starts on the floor, as with the deadlift, short arms force you to drop into a lower starting position. That changes your leverage and adds strain to your back.
The workaround: “With a sumo deadlift, placing your legs farther apart helps your hands start closer to the ground,” Rooney says. It also allows you to begin with a more upright torso, taking stress off your lumbar spine.
Stand with your feet about twice shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out. Squat and grab the center of the bar using an overhand grip, with your thumbs 12 inches apart and your torso almost perpendicular to the floor. Without allowing your back to round, thrust your hips forward and stand up with the barbell. Then lower it, keeping it as close to your body as possible. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Short-armed men tend to have smaller mitts; this makes holding the bar harder for them. A small hand’s grip gives out faster, reducing the amount of work you can do on pulling exercises, says Rooney.
The workaround: Since you can’t grow longer fingers, focus on your forearm endurance with grip training, Rooney says. Add these exercises to the end of any workout.
Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells and let them hang naturally at arm’s length next to your sides. Walk forward as long as you can, and then put the dumbbells down and rest. (If you last longer than 1 minute, use heavier weights.) Do this 3 to 5 times.
Towel Bar Hang
Wrap a towel around a pullup bar. Grab the towel using an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Hang for 20 seconds, rest, and repeat.
If you rolled a quarter off the back of your head, would it hit anything on the way down? If not, you have a flat back, most likely caused by a pelvis that’s tilted backward at the top. A tilted pelvis puts your lower back in a vulnerable position, setting you up for spinal injuries.
The workaround: Strengthen your hip flexors. Once they’re in shape, they’ll pull your pelvis back to neutral and improve your posture, says Eric Cressey, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Cressey Performance, in Hudson, Massachusetts.
Lying Psoas March
Lie on your back with your right leg on the floor and your left leg off the floor and bent 90 degrees. Loop an exercise band under your right foot and over the top of your left foot. (You can also use a low-pulley cable with an ankle strap, looped around your left foot.) Keeping your right leg steady, pull your left knee toward your chest without your lower back tucking beneath you. Pause, and return to the starting position. Do 10 to 12 reps; switch legs and repeat.
For tall men—basically anyone over 6 feet—the back squat can present two problems, says Durkin. The first involves physics: The longer the bones in your legs, the farther the bar has to travel on each rep and the harder your muscles need to work to lift it. Even with perfect form, you’ll have a tougher time adding size and strength. Men with shorter bones can do more reps with heavier weights.
The second problem is that your form is probably flawed. Longer bones have more opportunity to make false moves. You might struggle to keep your lower back in a neutral position (slightly arched) throughout the full range of motion. Or you might lean forward as you tire, putting stress on your lower back.
The workaround: Choose leg exercises that achieve more with less weight, such as the stepup. “You can work your legs hard but with potentially less back strain,” says Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S., co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training.
Holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length next to your sides, stand in front of a step or bench that’s about 18 inches high. Place your left foot flat on the step; your left knee should be bent 90 degrees. Push your left heel into the step and lift yourself up until your left leg is straight and you’re standing on one leg on the bench. Lower yourself to the starting position. Do 8 to 10 reps and switch legs. To make it harder, place a barbell across your back.
Everyone is born with flat feet, but most people develop their shock-absorbing arches in childhood. Sometimes, however, the arches never form properly, or they fall from repeated stress, injuries, or some combination of the two. Either way, you end up with feet that can pronate—roll inward—when you walk, run, or jump.
Flat feet can also limit your strength and power in the weight room. “When you pronate, you’re in deceleration mode,” says Cressey. “Your foot needs to roll in the opposite direction to push off.” That affects your strength on squats and deadlifts, and acts like ballast when you jump.
The workaround: Your glutes and hamstrings act as “anti-pronators,” Cressey says. Strengthen them, and you can compensate for the loss of power caused by your feet.
Lie faceup on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips off the floor by flexing your glutes so your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees. Pause, and lower your hips. Do 3 sets of 15 reps; when it becomes too easy, lift one foot off the floor and do a single-leg hip raise. Start with your weaker leg and repeat the set with your stronger leg.